by Steven Pisano
The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research was established in 1925 in Poland, with support from leading intellectuals of the time such as Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. It moved to New York in 1940 during the outbreak of World War II. YIVO houses the largest collection of materials on Eastern European Jews in the world. But, more than just an exemplary research institution, YIVO also runs many entertaining programs that feature classes, seminars and performances of music, theater, and art.
Last Thursday night, YIVO presented a musical program entitled Sweet Is Thy Voice: "The Song of Songs" in Concert as part of its Sidney Krum Young Artists Concert Series. Singers Lucy Fitz Gibbon, Marie Marquis, Kristin Gornstein, and Jonathan Woody were accompanied by Miki Sawada (piano), Matheus Souza (violin), Colin Brookes (viola), Clare Monfredo (cello), and Ian Rosenbaum (percussion).
The program's name comes from "The Song of Songs," or "Shir hashirim": an unusual book in the Bible because it is not about God or laws, but about love - both romantic and erotic. Both Jews and Christians have long extolled its beauty.
Works presented in this concert dated as far back as Bach's "Wann kommst du, mein Heil?", composed in 1731, though most of the works dated to the first three decades of the last century. The concert even included two world premieres: Na'ama Zisser's "lovesick," which was sung in Hebrew, and "Sought, Wanted, Longed For," by Loren Loiacono.
The program was developed by the composer Alex Weiser, who is the Director of Public Programs at YIVO. Weiser has a knack for innovative programming, having previously served a similar capacity for MATA and presently as a director of Kettle Corn New Music.
Another highlight included "Pitselekh Kinderlekh," from Shir Hashirim: Song of Love, A Musical Operetta, written by Joseph Rumshinsky and Anshel Schorr in 1911. Exquisitely sung in Yiddish with humor and verve by Marquis and Woody, the song featured a back and forth between male and female, just as in the original book of the Bible, that was playful, teasing, and passionate.
The evening ended gloriously with David Lang's "just (after song of songs)," which was written in 2014 and was featured the following year in the movie Youth (directed by Paolo Sorrentino). In short descriptions sung in rotation by Fitz Gibbon, Marquis, and Gornstein, a man and a woman list the attributes of the other that mean the most as part of their longing and love, frequently interspersed with a reference to "my beloved." The song is a hypnotic paean to love that is spiritual, physical, and romantic all at once. I think it is a modern masterpiece.